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Moving Beyond Fixed and Growth Mindsets

Too often I see posts on social media claiming ‘we must adopt a growth mindset’, or ‘it is bad to have a fixed mindset’, and more than once both in the same post.

Now consider this for a moment:

When we ask people to have a growth mindset and not a fixed mindset, aren’t we then asking them to fix their mindset on growth?

Forget the mindset

Word games aside. It is not about one or the other, it is about being able to adapt what’s needed when it is needed.

With a fixed mindset I can become a specialist in a domain of expertise. If I feel great in that domain there’s nothing wrong with a ‘fixed’ mindset. Keeping up with your current profession is perfectly possible (and needed) with a fixed mindset.

If we don’t keep up, we don’t have a fixed mindset, we have a ‘blocked’ mindset.

A growth mindset helps us to broaden our horizons to other domains. One that may be related, or something completely new (or anything in between). This is very useful if we want to become knowledgeable in multiple domains.

Multiple domain expertise seems to be projected as a ‘must’ nowadays if you want to make a career (fast), but don’t fall in the trap of ALWAYS learning about new stuff. In the end we lose focus, we will know a little about a lot of domains, with a risk of not knowing enough about any domain to deliver decent work. Or worse, falling behind on that one or two things we were experts in.

But… we must have people adopt an Agile Mindset

No, you don’t. We can’t ‘require’ people to ‘adopt an [agile] mindset’.

Let’s break this argumentation down a little. Starting from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition for ‘mindset’:

mindset [noun]

  • a mental attitude or inclination

  • a fixed state of mind

We can have a mental attitude or inclination towards agility, that’s ok. However, we pass the mark when it turns into a fixed state of mind, because Agile isn’t the holy grail of doing a good job (or doing business).

What we need is people that understand that we need to adapt to context. Agile is good. In a certain context. A growth mindset is good. In a certain context. A fixed mindset is good… when the context requires it.

Don’t get your stick and carrot out to hammer the Agile, or Growth mindsets home.

Show people what it is to be adaptive!

Change a habit

Being adaptive comes with a consciousness about and ability to change our habits. Though we may not be conscious about our habits all the time, and some people may even belief they don’t have any: We’re all habit animals.

But what is a “habit”, and why does it matter? Why does it matter more than “mindset”?

Let’s start with some definitions again.

habit [noun]

  • the prevailing disposition or character of a person's thoughts and feelings: mental makeup

  • a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance

Though the dictionary gives more ways to define “habit”, the importance of these two definitions is that a habit can be related to action (behavior) and thinking (mental makeup, or call it mindset) – blame me for cherry picking is you want, but these fit the story...

These definitions may lead to an observation: when it comes to change in people, we ask people to do something different and think differently. We ask people to adapt their action or thinking to a changing situation, to change their habits.

Simply said, we can’t ask people to act differently without asking to also think differently. And the other way around, thinking differently has its consequences for the way people act.

Designing habit change, a bit of theory

Ok, forget the mindset, change a habit. But how do we do that?

There are several books, methods, methodologies that we can consult about behavior change. The two I read come down to the same: How can I create a new habit from an action I want or need to take. It all starts with ‘why’ (no surprise there). Call it a goal, an aspiration or a purpose, if we can’t keep top of mind ‘why’ we need a new or changed behavior, the probability that we actually form a different action into a habit is small.

James Clear in Atomic Habits lays out a simple 4-step process which he derives from a self-designed framework he calls the Four Laws of Behavior Change:

“The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits, p50.

A similar ‘process’ for behavior change is proposed by BJ Fogg PhD in his book Tiny Habits. It follows a similar path (full process on p181 in the book). It may seem different but comes down to something very much alike:

  • Clarify an aspiration (Craving)

  • Explore behavior options, match with current specific behaviors, start tiny (Response)

  • Find a good prompt (Cue)

  • Celebrate successes (Reward)

BJ Fogg’s process offers us one additional step, which I believe is crucial to successful change in people: Troubleshoot, iterate and expand.

The mayor differences, to me, between these two are:

  • The background of their books/methods. James Clear comes with references to many studies and research, while BJ Fogg’s focus is on experiences from the field.

  • The sequence of actions differs. BJ Fogg invites us to first explore why and what we can do. James Clear seems to assume we know that already.

  • Though Atomic sounds smaller than Tiny, the first starts from introducing a response as a whole, the latter describes a process of breaking that response down into steps if that’s what we need to grow a habit.

Both propose a clear key for successful change: celebration/rewards. We are naturally wired to change when we feel good. Making sure we feel good through celebration and rewards therefore helps us to ‘embed’ behaviors as habits.

I can’t decide if one is better than the other, nor if either of them is (completely) right in their proposed method. However, in experimenting with BJ Fogg’s model I did receive very positive feedback and succeeded in actual change in people.

Let’s get back to the habits and discover how our ‘thinking’ and ‘acting’ are connected to one another? And how that fits into this tiny bit of theory.

Let’s go try and change a mindset

It seems to become common understanding that ‘if you want people to change you have to change their mindset’.

True, but I hope you understand by now that you can’t just simply change people’s mindset, what a person thinks and does... A mindset represents what a person believes, what they have grown to categorize as maximizing reward and minimizing danger over the course of their lives, and therefor drives their actions.

The clearest way I found to explain the relation between thinking and acting comes from The Ladder of Inference. This model was first put forward by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris, and made popular by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline. It gives us some helpful insights in how the thinking-acting relation works in our brains. The Ladder of Inference shows how you move from data you observe (bottom rung of the ladder) to beliefs and actions based upon assumptions.

In short: how people act is based on the believes they have formed over time (sometimes their whole life) by observing available “data”. Those beliefs make that people do more of the same, they form habits which in accordance with their ‘mindset’ are the right ones.

Being agile is good, why are you not adopting?

Let’s try to walk this through with an example of the launch of a “going agile” initiative.

Imagine your company’s CIO walking into the room telling you and his other direct reports that the company is “going agile” and believes that ‘changing the people’s mindset’ is a key to get that transformation started.

At first the group may applaud the initiative: finally, a people focused change intent. Though once an understanding arises of what that ‘changed mindset’ looks like, many people will figure that it impacts their habits (their actions and believes). The initiative asks for shared accountability of the teams, distributed decision making and leadership at all levels. You start to think that this transformation is targeting the elimination of your position, and your peers, all together.

You start to wander… ‘But I reached my position by doing good, no? I’ve been a true people manager, I’m good at it and love my job as it is! I always gave the people credit for their work, assigned them tasks that interest them, made sure they reached their goals. Wasn’t that what the company always asked us to do? Didn’t I do exactly that, and a bit more? Where did I go wrong?’

Though you first were enthusiastic, the initiative quickly starts to mess with your believes. Because of your past success with your management (or call it leadership if you want) style you’ve grown to believe you are already taking the right actions when working with people. And that provokes a response.

You start to try to convince people that what you were doing all along was already pretty ‘agile’. Try to work your way around (some parts of) that ‘new’ mindset. Getting to a point where you get asked “but, being agile is good, why are you not adopting?”.

If we put this against the Ladder of Inference, we can see that:

  • You always give your people clear, easy to reach objectives

  • You observe that your people are more motivated than those in other teams

  • You select the data that your people are motivated

  • To you that means you are motivating them

  • So, you assume that giving them objectives is the key to that

  • Based on that you conclude that setting objectives for them is good

  • Because your people remain more motivated than others in other teams, you believe your assumption and conclusions are correct

  • You act on that by focusing even more on setting objectives for them

Now it turns out that your efforts of setting objectives for your team, not giving them the autonomy to come up with their own and challenge those, goes against what the company wants to see as ‘agile mindset’….

“Mindset change” is first and above all a change. When you force change on people, you provoke an unpredictable range of responses.

So, what can we do?

The process of acceptance of a mindset change starts with helping people understand that they make a selection of the available data based on their past experiences and preferences.

In this case, we might confirm your observation, though ask you to select different data: the observation doesn’t tell you if your people are highly motivated, it just says they are more motivated than others. How would you approach this differently if you selected different data from your observation? Maybe you can ask yourself ‘are my people highly motivated?’. Maybe you can ask them why they believe they are more motivated than others? Asking this may lead to a different observation, different pieces of data, an adjusted (or completely changed) meaning, etc…

The point is, if we want people to change their mindset we can’t ask them to simply change their believes and actions, we have to help them ‘deconstruct’ their current behaviors and habits.

The construction of (desired) habits

Now that we know how to ‘deconstruct’ our old habits and behaviors the question becomes how do we ‘construct’ the desired ones?

‘Right’, I hear you think, ‘climbing the Ladder of Inference again… of course’.

Correct! But how can we help people do that?

Imagine that same executive threw in another slide with the Agile Manifesto’s values and principles on it. Though that felt as a great starting point, it truly wasn’t more than that: a starting point. People won’t change magically.

In the absence of guidance on how to move from current believes and habits to agile values and principles, we’ll quickly see that people find ways to fit those values and principles into their current set of believes and habits. We create the infamous ‘business as usual with an agile language sauce on top of it’ situation.

For example, building on the previous example, a person that (falsely, maybe) considers that the people in his or her team are already motivated might “use” the fifth principle of the Manifesto for Agile Software development (which reads “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done”), to “prove” that their team is agile already, even though there’s more to the principle than “motivated people” only...

As long as we [change agents] don’t help people all the way up the ladder of inference, at least a few times, they will pick what fits in their believe system and keep doing what they always did. It is perfectly explainable human behavior. People are experts in pretending they actually move towards a change while they just play a game of hide and seek so nobody questions their Status Quo…

If we want their believe system to change, we have to help them design the desired change in their habits -starting from the manifesto’s values and principles if you will- and learn with them what does and doesn’t work for them.

Making the habit work… for you…

Let’s look at the process proposed by BJ Fogg for the construction of desired behaviors and habits. It consists of a few simple, but not easy, steps that’ll help people climb the ladder of inference. The process is called the “Fogg Behavior Model”, or in a formula “B=MAP”.

Let’s start with a reflection to understand the basics of this model.

Remember the last times you heard your phone ringing and didn’t pick up?


  • Reading a book, watching your favorite TV show, concentrating on a task at hand, …not him again…? – you didn’t have the motivation to answer the phone.

  • Under the shower, in the bathroom, participating in an important meeting, driving your car? – you weren’t able to pick up the phone.

In both situations your response might have been different if the prompt would have been different. If the call had come after your meeting or shower, if you hadn’t been called 3 times already by that same person on that same day…

When you get started you can use this model like this:

1. Define and clarify an aspiration you have – What do you really want?

2. Use a “B-cloud” to explore behavior options that may get you to your aspiration.

3. Match with behaviors:

  • Define the impact of each of the behaviors in your cloud on your aspiration (vertical, step 1).

  • Be honest with yourself about your ability to actual insert a new behavior in your daily routine (horizontal, step 2).

  • Select those with high impact and you know you can do (in the ‘star’ quadrant).

4. Start tiny – If you find it hard to get started, try to identify ‘why’

  • Checking that new behavior against Time, Money, Physical Effort, Mental Effort and Routine.

5. Find a good prompt – where does it fit, as precise as possible, in my daily routine?

6. Celebrate your success - before, while, and/or after; train the brain for success.

7. Troubleshoot, iterate, expand – using what BJ Fogg defines as “the skills of change”.

That last step is what I believe makes working with BJ Fogg’s model ‘real’. At the start of a transformation, the start of a behavior or habit change we know little about what will truly work for us. We don’t know which type of celebration we’ll feel good about, we don’t know how ‘disruptive’ we have to be with ourselves, we don’t know if our context will support or block progress, etc…

The way to effectively (not rapidly, but effectively) get to new habits is through experimentation.

Now it is your turn

We need people to be aware of their behaviors and investigate with them what their believes are that keep their behaviors in status quo mode.

Once that awareness and deconstruction exercise is done, we can build something new. We can use BJ Fogg’s behavior design model to co-create different actions that can lead to changed habits that help reach an envisioned aspiration.

When we help people construct new habits at work, work them through the methods in this document. It will help them understand it is not about having a [xyz] mindset, but the construction of desired habits that help them fulfil an aspiration.

What flow do you use to help people change their habits?

If you want to run a behavior change experiment, book some time to chat.

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